Operationalizing ‘Policy Capacity’: A Case Study of Climate Change Adaptation in Canadian Finance Agencies

Russell Alan Williams


Although a widely used term in the literature,
much of what we know about “policy capacity” in government
is limited to anecdotal evidence. Policy scholars have
not systematically investigated the ability of policy professionals
to provide good advice in relation to new policy challenges;
indeed many are skeptical that policy capacity (understood
as the potential for “evidence based policy learning”)
is an important driver of policy change in the first
place. Despite these empirical and theoretical problems,
governments remain committed to improving policy capacity
in the pursuit of better public policy. This paper offers some
preliminary observations on the difficulty of studying and
operationalizing policy capacity through an examination of
the finance sector in relation to climate change adaptation;
part of a large collaborative SSHRC CEI project. Drawing on
the existing literature on Canadian finance policymaking
dynamics, a survey of policy professionals in the area, and an
illustrative case study, the paper makes two claims. It suggests
that viewing capacity as involving both the cognitive
skills of professionals (or “analytical capacity”), and the
institutional arrangements in which policy research is conducted
(or “governance arrangements”), is a useful starting
point. However, as the findings in this paper highlight, if
capacity is the ability to provide effective advice in relation to
specific problems, then the nature of the problem itself (how
“wicked” or otherwise it might be) will also impact capacity.

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@Canadian Political Science Review (CPSR). ISSN 1911-4125